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Main Fountains

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The smallest among Rome's seven hills is also the one with the highest concentration of main fountains; the wealth of water and the ancient statues that decorate the outputs remark the importance of the square, officially considered Rome's centremost spot, and see of the city's administration.

Before taking into consideration the fountains, it is useful to spend a few words about the place itself, in particular to remember what the Capitolium square looked like in the late 16th century (see the following picture).
piazza del Campidoglio

Of the three buildings that had been scheduled, Palazzo dei Conservatori (on the right side) was finished, while the medieval Senators Palace (at the bottom of the square) was being enlarged, and the top of the hill was still an open workshop.
map of Rome by A.Tempesta, 1593
the Capitolium in 1593: the asterisk shows the bare side of
the square, while the arrow points towards Campo Vaccino;
circles indicate two more fountains supplied by the Aqua Felix:
in piazza Montanara (right) and in piazza Campitelli
Entirely drawn by Michelangelo (see also The Capitolium Square), a good deal of the work had already been carried out before his death, in 1564. No fountain had been planned by the great artist, simply because no running water reached this spot. Nevertheless, the two huge reclining statues that he had placed below the staircase of Senators Palace, taken from the Baths of Constantine, are allegories of rivers, the Nile (left) and the Tiber (right), which suggest that in their original location, they may have been part of an ancient fountain.

Only the niche in the center of the staircase remained empty, until in 1583 a tall statue of goddess Athena was taken from the courtyard of Palazzo dei Conservatori, in order to fill this space. Besides the niche, the Senators Palace was also still lacking its façade, and the upper part of its tower. The whole building on the eastern (left) side of the square had not even been started yet, so that the Capitolium square adjoined the nearby church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli by means of a rough and steep wall, as shown by the asterisk in the map above.
piazza del Campidoglio
allegory of the Tiber, from the Baths of Constantine

As soon as the water of the Aqua Felix reached the Capitolium, by the end of 1587, Sixtus V held a contest for the making of a fountain in the square atop the hill. Due to the pope's cold relations with the official fountain-maker della Porta (see page 6), it is not really surprising that the architect was set aside again, despite he had already built on the western side of the square Palazzo dei Conservatori (the see of Rome's Curators, the city's chief administrators), and was now finishing the front of the Senators Palace.
piazza del Campidoglio
small sphynx, over which the
Nile's personage rests its elbow
Instead, it is more surprising that the pope's choice fell on the project by Matteo Bartolani, the same architect who only a few years earlier had worked on the Aqua Felix, but had been fired when, at a certain point of the aqueduct, the water began to slope back towards the springs.
Bartolani's project was really lavish: although no drawing is left, a description of his fountain mentioned five basins of different sizes, to be set by the staircase of Senators Palace, topped by Rome's she-wolf.

In the same days Giacomo della Porta, besides the building's front, was also working on a fountain in piazza San Marco (see page 4), one of the last ones supplied by the Salone water, for whose making the large statue known as Marforio should have been used. But only a few days after the statue had been moved to piazza San Marco from the nearby Campo Vaccino, it was hastily heaved onto the Capitolium hill, already busy with della Porta's and Bartolani's workshops.
One of Rome's most distinguished scholars, Cesare D'Onofrio, maintained that this sudden and apparently mysterious change of collocation conceiled an attempt by della Porta to propose a different solution for the square, thus to dissuade Sixtus V from letting Bartolani build his grand fountain, which would have altered Michelangelo's original arrangement of the palace's staircase. In fact della Porta aimed at building a fountain of his own on the bare side of the square, so to fill the large gap, at the same time leaving the staircase as it was.
piazza del Campidoglio
the Nile, and the two basins
The "tough pope", as Sixtus was nicknamed, was too stubborn to change idea; Bartolani's ambitious project was confirmed, while Marforio was simply parked somewhere in the square.
via del Teatro Marcello
the twin lions at the bottom of the Capitolium
The only fountains that Sixtus V allowed della Porta to build for the Capitolium were the two small twin ones at the bottom of the flight of steps that leads to the square from below the hill. Two lions of dark basalt, found among the remains of the great Temple of Isis (see The 22 Rioni, Rione IX, Pigna), had been moved here in 1582; six years later, della Porta turned them into fountains, and added below each of them a marble vase, carved for the purpose.
These lions became particularly popular during the 17th century; in fact, to celebrate special events, instead of the usual water they spouted and white wine! Quite obviously, on these occasions all Rome crammed in the small square below the hill, to drink and carry away as much free wine as possible.
This fountain is also one of the rare cases in which the original statues, removed in 1885 and stored in the Vatican Museums, were taken back, in 1955.

Meanwhile, the works for the Senators Palace's great fountain were in progress. Two large basins were actually carved and set into place, one inside the other, below the tall central niche. But the pope did not know that his time was short: he died two years later, in 1590.
His three successors, namely Urban VII, Gregory XIV and Innocent IX, were certainly not blessed with longevity, and reigned for less than twelve months; so until a fourth pope (Clement VIII) was elected in 1592, we may think that the works in Capitolium square were considerably slowed down. In the end, the remaining three basins of Bartolani's fountain, yet already carved, were never used, nor the she-wolf replaced the goddess in the niche, and the complex remained unfinished, very similar to what we see today.
However, the fountain was still to undergo its last alteration: in 1593, apparently without a reason, the large statue of Athena was taken back to the courtyard of Palazzo dei Conservatori, and replaced with an allegory of Rome, holding a spear and wearing a beautiful red garment (in porphyry), yet definitely too low for the tall niche. The small size of the figure is also underlined by the three different stands it had to be rested upon, in order to lift it and fill the empty space left by the previous statue.
piazza del Campidoglio
the small allegory of Rome

On the following year, Giacomo della Porta could finally start the project that he had been denied by the "tough pope": a fountain with Marforio statue (see also Rome's Talking Statues), for the eastern side of the square.
Palazzo Nuovo (piazza del Campidoglio)
della Porta's Fountain of Marforio, in its present location
The bearded figure was given a basin shaped as the ones Bartolani had drawn for the Senators Palace (this may have even been one of the three spare ones), and a tall front at the back, on which, high above, hung a huge head of emperor Constantine (now in the courtyard of Palazzo dei Conservatori), and the bronze sphere that a few years earlier Sixtus V had removed from the top of the Vatican obelisk during the works for its erection in St.Peter's square, in the hope of finding in it Julius Caesar's ashes (see Obelisks, part I).
Indeed, this was the work in which della Porta diverged most from his usual scheme (see page 1); it was also the last one built by this great architect, probably the most prolific fountain-maker of all times.

Unfortunately, the whole structure had to be disassembled only half a century later, when the third building that Michelangelo had drawn for the square was finally begun; in its courtyard the fountain of Marforio was rebuilt, though without its tall front, in 1734.

other pages in part III

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